I was once invited by a clergyman to address his congregation during Brotherhood Week. He warned me that though we were of the same religious faith, his congregation might not receive me cordially because I happened to be of a different race and color than they.
This warning caused me to ask myself: Who am I that people who did not know me, and had never seen me, should choose to be hostile toward me? I answered this question in my own mind. When I went to the church, I introduced myself to the audience as follows:
“I am an individual, just like each of you, who had nothing whatsoever to do with choosing who my parents would be. I, like you, did not know whether I would be born of parents who were rich or poor, black or white, Jew or Gentile. I did not know whether I would be born in America or on foreign soil, or whether my parents would speak English or Hottentot. I, like you, did not know whether I would be born of parents who were the owners of a large mansion, or would be living in a slum tenement, unfit for human habitation. I, like you, did not know whether I would be born of parents who were drunkards or high priests. As a matter of fact, I had nothing whatsoever to do with deciding whether my parents would be married at all.”
In this somewhat unconventional way, I introduced myself. At the close of the religious services, people came up to me and said they had never realized before just how-but for the accident of birth-anyone of us might be the other. They told me this gave them a new, and a broader point of view.
And my own awareness of who I was and who-but for the accident of birth-I might have been, strengthened my faith in the conviction that all human beings are the children of one Creator, and that the Creator of this earth intended that all of the peoples who inhabit the earth should share together the benefits and blessings of the earth to their full use and enjoyment. I also believe that all men were created equal, and that any differences in the physical or mental capacities of man today, or of the skills and initiative with which man uses his talents, are due either to environmental factors, or are the by-products of man’s inhumanity toward man, in what has become a struggle by some men for more power, and for the possession of more worldly goods than they need to enjoy the benefits and blessings of this earth.
Applying these beliefs to everyday life, it seems clear to me that people who really believe in democracy as a way of life can no longer tolerate one measure of justice and equality for some and a different measure for others. This I believe; this I try to practice.
Now, what are some of the specific things I have found important in my own life in this connection? I have found that it is important to follow in my daily life and in the public service, the doctrine common to us all: Do unto others as you would be done by, even if you were unlucky enough to be in the shoes of those who are compelled to appear before you at the bar of justice. Each day as people appear before me, I am concerned not so much with being known as an erudite judge as with being known as a human judge-as a defender of the rights and liberties of all the people. Each day as I open court and look upon those who come before me seeking justice, I say to myself: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Hubert T. Delany was Justice of the Domestic Relations Court of New York. Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, he graduated from the New York University Law School in 1926. A year later he became Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Delany also served on the NAACP board of directors.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.